Something interesting happened on the latest episode of Supergirl. “Falling,” the sixteenth entry into the Greg Berlanti-produced show, featured a narrative device fans of DC Comics and past television iterations of super-prefixed characters have used before — red Kryptonite. That is, an alternative form of the typically green leftovers from Kara Danvers’ (Melissa Benoist) home planet that can weaken — if not kill — her and her Metropolis-based cousin. Yet that isn’t the interesting part. What’s so intriguing about Supergirl‘s use is the particular kind of red Kryptonite writers Jessica Queller and Robert Rovner employed.
It’s almost as if they were channeling Superboy, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville — three previous live-action television productions starring Kryptonians that aired during the late ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. Red Kryptonite popped up in the pages of DC Comics as early as the pre-Crisis era, but its effects were nowhere near unanimous as Supergirl and its small-screen predecessors would have us believe. Hence why, even if Queller, Rovner, Berlanti or anyone else responsible for the “Falling” storyline wasn’t influenced directly by these shows, this version of the mind-altering stuff is what ultimately turned Kara bad on Monday.
Whenever red Kryptonite popped up in the comics, the results of Superman’s exposure to it were variable to a ridiculous degree. Kal-El became evil sometimes, but he was also transformed into a dwarf, a dragon and a man with the head of an ant. Sometimes it caused his body to grow excessive amounts of hair, age rapidly and grow extra limbs. Essentially, red Kryptonite was a tool with which writers and illustrators could shape and reshape Superman to their heart’s desire. Much of this fell to the wayside, however, when 1983’s Superman III introduced audiences to a synthetic version of Kryptonite. It was still green, but its effects on Superman (Christopher Reeve) were much more focused. He became apathetic, ignoring humanity’s many plights and responding to friends and enemies alike with derision and disdain. Towards the end of the process, he purposely engineered harmful situations.
The long-forgotten Superboy television series combined Superman III‘s synthetic Kryptonite with the red variation from the comics to create a new version for its college-bound hero in 1990. In an episode titled “Super Menace!,” the military-produced material results from tests on normal Kryptonite meant to neutralize its effects on Superboy (Gerard Christopher). What results instead is red Kryptonite, and when student Clark Kent comes in contact with it, he trades his vigilance for apathy and ill intent. Like, let’s-do-business-with-a-gangster-version-of-Metallo levels of ill intent. The episode (as well as the entire show) is silly, but its adaptation of red Kryptonite streamlined the modified rock from Superman III into what would eventually become Kara’s downfall in “Falling.”
But not before Lois & Clark and Smallville each had a turn with the popular plot device. Writers will always jump at the chance to temporarily turn the hero of the story into the villain. This is especially the case for any medium involving an element of performance, as the actor or actress who’s usually good will relish the chance to play bad for a change. Hence why the many super-powered television properties of Warner Bros. have chosen to use and reuse red Kryptonite so often.
During the second and third seasons of Lois & Clark, both Superman (Dean Cain) and Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher) were affected when exposed to the stuff in “Individual Responsibility” and “Ultra Woman.” In the first instance, red Kryptonite rendered Clark apathetic to several events that required his attention — including the kidnapping of Daily Planet editor Perry White (Lane Smith). Unable to figure out why, he sought (in costume) advice from a professional psychotherapist. A season later, a fully recovered Superman was targeted by a pair of would-be robbers with a red Kryptonite laser. Yet when they shot him, his powers were temporarily transferred to a nearby Lois.
Lois & Clark introduced a circumstantial element into the mix with its “Ultra Woman” episode, but apathy remained a key component. Smallville did the same years later. Towards the beginning of the second season, “Red” brought red Kryptonite to the fore with the creation of the so-called “Dark Clark,” a version of the proto-Superman (Tom Welling) who was nominally more evil than his otherwise positive self. Later on in the season finale, “Exodus,” Clark skipped town after a series of traumatic events and donned a red Kryptonite ring. This story line bled into the first episode of the third season, “Exile,” which found him robbing banks and hanging out in night clubs in Metropolis. The material popped up again and again throughout the show’s ten-season run, affecting Clark and his friends alike. Apathy, evil and even lustful thoughts, feelings and actions were attributes its victims regularly experienced.
Which leads us back to Monday’s episode of Supergirl, “Falling,” in which Kara stumbles across Maxwell Lord’s (Peter Facinelli) personal stash of red Kryptonite after rescuing firefighters from a blaze at a lab. And like Reeve, Christopher, Cain and Welling before her, Benoist emphasizes her character’s newfound carelessness gradually. Its effects aren’t instantaneous. So, when Kara first succumbs to Lord’s synthetic creation, she simply ignores the DEO director (David Harewood) during a briefing. From there, her behavior quickly escalates from pure apathy (letting an alien convict go) to combative violence (dropping Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant from the top of a building, attacking her adopted sister).
Yet again, the twist does for Supergirl precisely what it did for the previous series, films and comic book issues — it livens things up for the audience and advances the particular story that’s being told. For Superman III and Lois & Clark, it was inner conflict made flesh. For Superboy and Smallville, it was youthful aggression with an extra kick of adrenaline. And Supergirl? A mix of the two, albeit with Kara’s ongoing struggle to accept her adopted place with her sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh) in spite of her aunt’s (Laura Benanti) death at the hands of the DEO. They’re different stories that all began with the same catalyst and ended in pretty much the same way — guilt-stricken heroes and pain for those most dear to them.